Rail gazing: on staring and subway etiquette


After a short ride or two on a New York City subway, you can observe the most interesting collection of culture that NYC has to offer; just don’t stare for too long. Photo by Andy Johnson

“There’s always something crazy to see. Instead of watching TV, I watch the people on the train,” Devin Gonzalez, a daily F-train commuter and stealthy people-watcher, said. “It’s also the only place where I can get to know someone’s armpit better than their face,” he added.

A convenient, affordable and reasonably efficient form of transportation, the subway welcomes an eclectic crowd of characters who can either enrich or spoil a commute. From rowdy teenagers and trendsetters to sprawled out hobos and grassroots performers—for a New Yorker, rubbing elbows with people you would otherwise never cross paths with is a daily occurrence.

Photo by Andy Johnson

As unnatural as this all seems, it doesn't typically take individuals too long to ascertain how to behave on an NYC subway.

"I only look at people for a few seconds and then I look away. I don't want people to know that I look at them. It would be too weird," Shelby DeMarco a Manhattan bound J-train commuter,  said. DeMarco admittedly memorizes every MTA advertisement in an attempt to quell her wandering eyes.

In a space so small, it often seems as though patrons make a collective effort to avoid eye contact. With every other aspect of comfort stripped away, the illusion of personal space is kept sacred through a mutual respect for others' peripheral vision.

There are, of course, the exceptions: curiosity inspires commuters to be spectators without rubbernecking, and tourists are generally excused for their goggling tendencies.

“I'll see someone playing a fun video game, and yeah I’ll usually check it out,” Peter Ellis, a self-proclaimed pro in the art of casual staring, said. He also explained that as long as passengers look bored, they can blankly stare at most anything on the train without consequence. “You got to pass the time somehow,” Ellis added.

The art of staring is a vital part of NYC’s subway riding culture, but the difference between a casual peek and an unwelcome stare can sometimes be measured in nanoseconds.

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